Limiting time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram can improve depression symptoms and loneliness
As Facebook has grown, much has been made of the potential link between social media and mental health. Several studies have suggested that spending more time on social media could potentially increase someone’s risk for depression or anxiety symptoms. However, no one has been able to draw a direct connection – until now.
A new study from the University of Pennsylvania claims to have uncovered a causal relationship between social media, depression, and loneliness for the first time ever.
As psychologist Melissa G. Hunt explains in the report, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, past studies on the issue were either unrealistic or severely limited in scope. For example, some studies required participants to completely drop out of using social media, while others were conducted within labs over short time spans.
“We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,” says Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department.
To do this, the team tracked social media use on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram using data collected by the participants’ iPhones. Specifically, they focused on objective data tracking active app usage.
At the start of the study, the 143 participants between the ages of 18 and 22 completed a survey assessing their overall mood and mental health at the onset. Participants were also asked to share screenshots of their iPhone battery to give a baseline view of their social media use.
From there, participants were randomly split into one of two groups – one control group and one which limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day. This means participants in the second group would spend 30 minutes on social media each day, at most.
Over the next three weeks, participants would share screenshots of the iPhone battery screen and complete assessments of their levels of anxiety, fear of missing out, depression, and loneliness.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Hunt says. “Using less social media than you normally would lead to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
More than anything, Hunt stresses that she is not suggesting that teens or young adults completely quit social media. She recognizes this would be unrealistic for most and could potentially trigger other issues with loneliness or isolation. However, she says the findings suggest that instilling limits to social media usage could potentially be beneficial.
“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
Hunt also notes that the research only included three of the countless social media platforms out there, and thus she can’t speak to whether this effect is seen on Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, or other networks. She is also hesitant to say whether the effects would be similar to other age groups.
Still, Hunt and her team believe the findings are significant enough to draw some simple conclusions and recommendations for social media use.
First, Hunt recommends reducing the opportunity for social comparison on social media.
“When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.”
Additionally, she says people need to find a balance between their online lives and their actual real-life experiences.
“In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”